Thursday, February 18, 2010

Framing an Argument

A number of readers have written to tell me that they found my "10 steps to an argument" useful. Some have also sent me their first attempts, which make interesting reading. One such attempt has reminded me of the importance of articulating a strong, clear thesis statement here. Sometimes people write papers to show things like the following:

T: Actor-network theory (specifically the notion of boundary objects) can helpfully augment recent theoretical discussions about the relationship between leaders and followers.

The writer then defines the paper's rhetorical problem as getting the reader to "understand" this thesis on a background that can be characterized as follows:

(1) Few leadership theorists rely on the arguments of actor-network theory.
(2) While boundary objects have been mentioned in the leadership literature, it is normally only in passing and in caricature.
(3) Despite its empiricism, actor-network theory is often lumped in with anti-realist social constructivism.

Notice that all of these sentences are about the literature, not about anything in the world. But why do we need a paper to argue that the leadership literature "can helpfully [be] augment[ed]" by actor-network theory. Be helpful! Augment it! Here's one way:

T: The relationship between leaders and followers is often managed by the strategic use of boundary objects.

It is at this point that you have to ask to yourself what the reader is supposed to do with that statement (believe it, endorse it, or understand it) and then capture the difficulty, i.e., the difficulty of getting the reader to do it, by expressing three key background assumptions that the reader is likely to set T against. More later.

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

Excellent post.

"I will look at the relation between x and y" is not a thesis.

"X is important for explaining y" is not a thesis. A thesis has to say how and why. Like, "without x, we have no way of explaining why y works the way it does, because... " "The reason why nobody has seen this is that they have had a caricature view of x. Actually..." [explain why this view is a caricature and what a better vision would ential.]